From the field: Bundelkhand

At nature’s mercy

Print edition : April 17, 2015

A farmland affected by a hailstorm at Bhojla village in Jhansi district on March 24, 2014. Photo: Monica Tiwari

Agricultural disaster is a recurring event in the Bundelkhand region of Uttar Pradesh. The crisis visits its people in various forms every year and almost all through the year. The factors causing it range from natural calamities to man-made exploitative conditions such as oppressive agricultural indebtedness to administrative apathy towards issues concerning the farming community. Thus, when hailstorms and unseasonal rains hit the region in late February and through March causing widespread damage to crops, comparisons were immediately drawn to a similar situation last year. In February and March 2014, hailstorms and rain wreaked havoc on the farmlands and in the lives of the people of the region.

At that time, the Uttar Pradesh government evaluated a crop loss of Rs.365 crore. This year, too, the loss in Bundelkhand is of comparable magnitude although its quantification is still under way. Initial estimates from the government are that the freak climatic conditions have affected 31 districts of the State and caused a cumulative damage of approximately Rs.745 crore. However, it is admitted at all levels, from Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav to social activists, observers, people’s representatives in local bodies and administrators at the State level down to the block level, that the farmers of the Bundelkhand districts of Banda, Jalaun, Hamirpur, Mahoba and Chitrakoot are the most affected by the natural calamity.

Despite the widely accepted fact that Bundelkhand faces the worst agricultural crisis, distribution of relief is not commensurate with the facts on the ground. Although the State government sought assistance to the tune of Rs.365 crore from the Central government in March 2014, relief was not sanctioned until January 2015. Thus, almost one year passed since the disaster struck Bundelkhand before it could get the needed Central assistance. Even before relief could reach the people of the region, they were struck by another calamity.

The State government transferred Rs.85 crore from other accounts in December 2014 to provide some sort of interim relief to the people, but even senior bureaucrats agree that this is insufficient given the seriousness of the disaster.

Unnatural deaths of farmers, including cases of suicide, have been reported from several parts of the region in the past few years. According to Vidya Dham Samiti (VDS), a Banda-based non-governmental organisation which has been closely monitoring the agricultural sector and the concerns of the farming community, there were 37 unnatural deaths of farmers between March 3 and 25. Of these, 14 were clear cases of suicide while the rest were deaths due to “shock” following the crop failure caused by unseasonal rains and the hailstorm, the VDS told Frontline.

However, the State Relief Commissioner, Leena Johri, said the number of deaths caused by the natural calamity in the State was officially estimated at 22. She told Frontline that none of these deaths had been confirmed as suicide and that most of them happened when the victims were struck by lightning.

Akhilesh Yadav has directed the District Magistrates to inquire into the causes of the deaths of farmers, including the reported suicides, and ensure fair distribution of relief to all who have suffered crop damage due to the rains and the hailstorm. The government has raised the ex-gratia payment announced to the next of kin of the farmers who lost their lives to Rs.7 lakh, adding Rs.5.5 lakh to the relief announced by the Centre. In order to provide additional relief, the Chief Minister sent out circulars instructing government and semi-government financial institutions to defer collection of dues on the loans of farmers until June 30.

However, as senior officials of the State administration and activists and observers monitoring the region told Frontline, the real test of these announcements is in their implementation. Bundelkhand’s track record with regard to the implementation of relief projects is mired in caste and class discrimination of the worst order. Raja Bhayya of the VDS pointed out that Bundelkhand’s agricultural crisis was a product of cumulative inadequacies, which included phenomenal inequities in terms of land distribution, near total absence of implantation of modern techniques in agriculture, social injustices in the form of caste and class discrimination, and an overall apathy of political and administrative institutions. “The relief measures for disasters will become really effective only if these long-term factors are addressed simultaneously,” he said.

Commenting on Bundelkhand’s plight in particular and that of Uttar Pradesh in general, Sajjad Hassan, senior fellow at the Centre for Equity Studies, said the State government needed to move towards formulating a policy perspective on unnatural deaths of farmers with well-defined parameters for rehabilitation and resettlement. Hassan pointed out that some of the States with significant agricultural sector problems, such as Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh, had already initiated moves in this regard. He said another key component of improving the lot of Bundelkhand would be enhancing the effectiveness of the delivery mechanism by improving the capacities of the lower bureaucracy, including officers at the district level. Hassan is of the view that some models, particularly from some of the southern States, can be emulated. All these solutions require planning and implementation in the medium and long term.

Venkitesh Ramakrishnan

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